Having been a system which is a patchwork of geographical mishmashes forged by centuries of history, it’s difficult for anyone to understand how local government works in England. Even if the situation is far from being perfect in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, some interesting reforms were done in the last few decades in those jurisdictions. Local government reforms in England is still an unfinished business, and political games aside, it is a work in progress for decades while having no end in sight.
I see three problems with the current system of local authorities in the UK and particular in England:
-Too complex even to politicians themselves to understand correctly. Having non-professional politicians at a local level is a good idea but there is too much double-dipping for elected officials. French talk about le cumul des mandats to illustrate this concept.
-Accountability for citizens and ratepayers is sometimes a very difficult task even if local government is the government closest to the people. After the devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it’s impossible to conceive that local municipalities in England does not have a formal framework of devolution. In other words, it’s not fair for citizens in England to not have a form of devolution as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also have a say in Westminster while England have such an incoherent set of local authorities .
-We could add a lack of interest in decision process. Too much political games played. Too much reliance on central government.
Problem is that there is no magic solution to these problems. But the current system of local government in England is not sustainable at all.
These as the solutions to this problem. There is no real easy solutions. And they are not all solutions which are popular electorally.
-First of all, even if counties in England are things where sometimes have a strong historical legacy, a two-tiered system is the worst of both worlds. In many cases the responsibilities between a local authority and a county are not even coherent from one region to another. The most extreme case is in London, where nobody is quite sure what is the exact power between London City Hall (ie: the thing which is leaded by Boris Johnson) and the boroughs for something as benign as roads, sidewalks or who oversee schedules for public transportation. In some counties, things such as libraries or roads are sometimes in a jurisdictional black hole, where the local authority and the county are playing a game of ping-pong for power and relevant funding.
What England needs is a system like in the other constituent countries in the UK where there are bigger municipalities but where everything is at the same place in unitary authorities which cover all of England. Easier said than done however. Change is difficult to do when you are redrawing borders.
–Second of all, the electoral system in England’s local government elections is atrocious. To give you an example, the electoral system used in London boroughs sometimes make that there is no opposition to a given administration even if a party have less than half of the popular vote. This was the case in London boroughs like Newham or Barking and Dagenham in the last 2010 general election in London boroughs. Having no opposition in local government is the best to more cronyism and is a situation which very few people are comfortable with.
Even the duration of voting mandate sometimes don’t make any sense at all and sometimes changes from where you are in the same council. Representation by population is also atrocious in some cases. I do believe that the solution is having bigger electoral districts but having a system (whatever STV like in Scotland or Northern Ireland or a PR list based system with seats having 5 or 6 Councillors each) which is stable with local elections every 4 years. If one councillor resigns then an election will be done by preferential voting to have an absolute majority of votes.
The other thing is that a system like this could well bring an executive which is more stable and more accountable. Many Britons are more keen on a mayor which is rotating than a formal mayor as opposed to some other political systems in the western world, but I believe that the mayor should be the leader of the party or coalition who is more prone on having the confidence of the assembly.
However, as local government is mainly party based in England, having an elected mayor could work or not work depending that a mayor of one given party could be in a conflict between a municipal council from one faction and the mayor from another faction. It’s however possible this situation don’t happens if the mayor is head of the municipality and has one vote like other councillors.
-Thirdly, many don’t vote in local elections. There are no magic solution to get people more involved in politics. If so, everybody would be using this solution. However, having more checks and balances (like a process of recall for elected officials or even laws as a sort of firewall) could work just like having referendum on certain issues. It’s however quite difficult to know where is the line between an issue which is assembly business and something which requires popular consultation.
In conclusion, courageous reforms are needed in local government in England. But the main problem is reforms which are halfway (or even the electoral reform to the AV system) or done in a botched-up way. Nobody is happy then. Sadly, the experiment in electing sheriffs (or police commissioners as they are called) in England and Wales was not a bad idea for more accountability, but it was very badly sold as a solution which leave everyone on their appetite. Best example is the awful turnout in the first police commissioner elections last fall. Botched watered-down reforms are not the solution, what is the solution is courageous reforms done with coherence and gusto.